What do special forces teams have in common with agile teams?

In 2008, I wrote an article for Better Software Magazine

“Few would think that Special Forces tactics bear any relation to software project teams. But Antony Marcano draws a surprising parallel between the dynamics of modern Special Forces “room-clearing” methods and the dynamics of modern software development teams.”

My thinking has moved on slightly since then. Recently, several people have expressed an interest in the article.

So, here is an updated version, based on my more recent thinking and with some additional detail that had to be omitted from the original due to word-count restrictions of publishing in printed form…

Please note – The comparison with military and police armed forces is purely metaphorical and specific to the message I hope emerges about roles and titles.

Lessons Learned in Close Quarters Battle

I’m at the door, heart pounding so loud I’m sure everyone can hear it. Four silhouettes are flat to the wall. I’m point man, stuck to the edge of the door we’re about to breach. The team lead whispers through a covert radio mike,  “Alpha 1 in position.” Silence… tense anticipation… then, after a thirty-second eternity, my earpiece crackles as control responds, “Standby… Standby… Strike! Strike! Strike!”

The method of entry (MOE) man, on the opposite edge of the door frame, kicks in the door; behind me, the team lead throws in a stun grenade. BANG! As point man, I enter immediately—followed by number two—and five action-packed seconds and three targets later, we’re able to call out “ROOM CLEAR!”

Image of Antony Training with his Airsoft TeamInstantly, we move to the next room. The MOE man is nearest to it, immediately becomes point-man. The man on rear cover follows taking up the MOE position, becoming the MOE man. Meanwhile, the original number two and I are exiting the room.

I’m the first out and, seeing that the number two position on the next door is yet to be filled, I fall in behind the point man, becoming team lead. I am now responsible for calling the next breach and for throwing in the next flash-bang. The former number-two drops in behind me to provide rear cover. Each of us instantly switches roles, and with a deafening bang, the next door is breached without hesitation.

This might sound like a scene from an action movie but, no, it was a close quarters battle (CQB) training session I attended with the rest of The Foundation:Special Operations Group—a top UK Airsoft team. Airsoft is a skirmishing sport similar to paintball but with more realistic looking equipment and no mess.

In this training session, run by a private security contractor, we were practicing the latest CQB techniques taught to police and military armed forces. In CQB situations, armed forces don’t have time to shuffle around to get team members into the position that an individual’s job title might dictate. Lives are at stake (or points in Airsoft). The team must be able to adapt instantly; there can be no waste in the process.

 

Fixed Roles are accompanied by Waste

Historically, CQB dynamic entry (room clearing) was, and still is in places, taught with fixed roles. Instead of each person reading the situation and falling into the position that maximises the flow of the team from room to room, each person had a fixed role.

Prior to practicing the dynamic role-switching, or ‘read system’ we also tried the fixed role position. This was noticeably slower. Instead of the team-members outside the room falling straight into the position on the next room, they had to wait for the number 1 & 2 (and sometimes number 3) to exit the first room and get into position covering the next door. Only then could the MOE specialist move to the door allowing the last team-member to move up to continue their role providing rear cover.

The extra time it takes waiting for each specialist to be in position can take 10-30 seconds longer per-room. This time adds up to several minutes of wasted time when you have a whole series of rooms to clear. This fixed-role system not only puts the same person at the greatest risk as point-man on each room, as was highlighted by a British Army CQB instructor I trained with last year, but reduces your flexibility or can even halt the operation—especially when one of your team-members is injured (or worse).

If everyone is a specialist, you need more people in those specialist roles to deal with the risk that one of them could be taken out at any time. We don’t have quite this concern in software teams, however, people do fall ill or need time off work for personal reasons.

 

We Still Need Experts

Indeed, there are experts within a dynamic team. For example, our MOE expert might tackle the especially tricky entries or advise the team on entry tactics before the game, but we all are capable to some degree in MOE. Each of us is capable of dynamically switching roles, quickly adapting to changing circumstances. This is a perfect example of a truly cross-functional team of generalising specialists [1].

Skills Demands are Constantly Changing

This dynamic role switching is almost the opposite of your typical software organisation where each person has a job title that fixes his role—business analyst, programmer, tester. These job titles make complete sense in phased-development approaches (e.g. waterfall) where the work is divided up as if it were a production line: Business analysts pass the outcome of business analysis to developers who pass the result of development on to testers and so on. These job titles make less sense when using agile approaches that integrate these activities so tightly that they are all but inseparable.

More significantly, however, the balance of skills needed during each iteration (or time-box) and even for each user-story fluctuates depending on the nature of the features being implemented. One change may involve more refactoring (changing internal and not external behaviour) and be largely protected by pre-existing automated tests. Another change may involve limited coding and much more exploratory testing. There are endless variations on how the emphasis on each skill-area will change as the work flows through our value-stream.

Like the Airsoft (or Special Forces) team going from one room to the next, software teams must seamlessly go from one story (or feature or business-value-increment) to the next. It’s simply too wasteful for progress to be halted while we wait for a fixed-role specialist to finish his previous task.

Everyone on the team must constantly adapt so that we continue to maintain a constant and efficient flow of value… Fulfilling our shared responsibility of frequently delivering working software.

History Repeating?

An increasing number of organisations seem to recognize this, creating a demand for multi-skilled people. Interestingly, however, history seems to be repeating itself!

Up to the mid 1990s, high- and low-level software design was performed by systems analysts and then coded by programmers. Perhaps due to the demands of rapid application development, the roles later combined and the multi-skilled analyst-programmer emerged. Subsequently, this became the norm and analyst-programmers were thereafter known only as “developers.”

Today the title of developer-tester (or tester-developer) is emerging in response to the flexibility demanded by agile teams—kind of an analyst-programmer-tester. As the uptake of agile methods grows, this demand is only going to rise! If history indeed repeats itself, the developer-tester may, too, become the norm—negating the need for the “tester” suffix that differentiates them. Yes, the “software tester” job title, one of the few remaining titles derived from phased-development methods of old, could suffer the same fate as Ye Olde Systems Analyst.

This wouldn’t mean that software testing as a discipline will disappear altogether—just that many of the testers and developers of today will need to leave their comfort zones to become the developers of tomorrow.

Acquire ‘Tags’ or Badges – not a Job Title

Fixed, specialised job titles alone could be part of the problem. Maybe we need to stop linking specific roles to job titles. So often at conferences people ask the audience, “put your hand up if you are… analysts… programmers… testers… designers…”

I notice that many people will only put their hand up when one of these is called. You may notice me put my hand up for each of these roles. I think of these labels more like tags than titles. I feel I can tag myself with all of these roles and switch between them (to varying degrees of competency) as the situation demands.

Maybe they’re not so much like tags as badges. In some forces and certainly in the cadets and even among scouts and brownies, as you demonstrate new skills, you are entitled to wear new badges.

The difficulty with fixed-role thinking is that for many, their very identity is attached to their job titles. The challenge becomes showing people why they would want to broaden their thinking. I’m not sure I have time to address that in this particular post.

Maximise (your) Value

I can tell you what’s in it for me, personally. The tasks most relevant to my job-title may not be relevant to the team’s current story or goals. By dynamically switching roles, I am able to do the task that is the most relevant and valuable to the team at that time, within the context of the project’s goals, rather than just the tasks of most relevance to my job title. I am then able to accelerate the speed at which the team can clear each story, as the CQB team clears each room.

I recognise that this isn’t always immediately practical. Some teams are very protective over access to source code… but this is a matter of trust. There are many ways you can earn this trust… It may be that you need to demonstrate your abilities to manage your own git, mercurial or subversion repository before you’ll be given access to the relevant project repositories. It may be that you can demonstrate that you are able to build an open-source code-base using similar technology on your own. You may simply need to be able to talk about the right things while asking another team-member with a different area of expertise for help – demonstrating that you’ve at least understood the basics. So, one of the things outside your job-title that may add value to the team might be learning how to do something that the team will soon need doing.

So, hold on to your job titles and stick to your job descriptions if you choose. Personally, I’ve chosen to develop my individuality, embrace new skills and acquire new ‘tags’ & badges—bringing to the team more value, flexibility, throughput and opportunity.

 

References: [1] Ambler, Scott. “Generalizing Specialists: Improving Your IT Career Skills.” Agile Modeling, 2006. www.agilemodeling.com/essays/generalizingSpecialists.htm

To find out more about Airsoft or to take your colleagues on a similar journey to this article, check out http://firefight.co.uk. Tell them that this article sent you their way… they know who I am and have already taken one of my client’s teams on a similar journey.

  • Gabriel Oliveira

    Nice parallel !

    I’m all in for the idea of “tags” instead of “job titles” and was agreeing with the whole text until that phrase:

    “the task that is the most relevant and valuable to the
    team at that time, within the context of the project’s goals, rather
    than just the tasks of most relevance to my job title”

    Sometimes, the project goals may be harmful and blind the team to some other tasks that someone “knows” has to be done (like a new tool to analyze some data or the POC of some technology that no one in the team have expertise yet and they may need in the future). A “responsible specialist” may use some “free time” to tackle some of those tasks, while someone “following the goals” would pick up the next Sprint story…

    Of course, If the PO is a nice person and the team has a good relationship with him/her, those tasks can be made visible and emerge in the next planning meeting and may even have a higher priority than a Story would :) In that particular case, the “just follow the goal” approach would work well